in From the Archives

The national and international Sibelius

by Joonas Kokkonen

Composer and academician Joonas Kokkonen (1921–1996) examined in 1990 Sibelius's often ambivalent position – on the one hand the object of exaggerated hero worship, on the other the victim of violent criticism as a "local celebrity".

[When writing this in 1990,] a hundred and twenty-five years have passed since the birth of Jean Sibelius, it is more than 60 years since the appearance of his last great works, and 33 years since his death. One would have thought the temporal perspective was enough for an objective look at the man. And yet for every creative artist there is a wavelike motion about how his work is valued, rising and falling by turns. In the case of smaller figures it is as if a large – or not so large – stone were to have fallen into the water, and the ripples moving outwards are soon swallowed up in the general sea-swell of the time. When a figure of Sibelius’s stature enters the fray, however, the event is more akin to an underwater earthquake, the shock waves of which subside only on far distant shores. Impassioned arguments for and against always follow in the wake of a major creative work of art. Lukewarm acceptance and mild disapproval is the mark only of mediocrity.

It has often been claimed that a genius is a solitary phenomenon, and almost as frequently that a genius is bound by many ties to his own time and his own surroundings. We cannot see the profile of Sibelius the composer – particularly the young Sibelius – from the right perspective unless we set behind it the awakening of the Finnish people and the turbulent intellectual life of the country during the decades when nationalism was in the ascendant.

It must be remembered, however, that the National Romantic era in our culture did not take place in a sealed Finnish test-tube. Quite the contrary: during Sibelius’s youth the international contacts were extremely active and fertile. It was undoubtedly of signal importance for the young composer that he was able as a student in the late 1880s to meet many of the foreign musicians then on the staff of the Helsinki Music Institute. By far the most important of these individuals was Ferruccio Busoni, himself later to become famous as a pianist and composer. The friendship between the two men remained firm all the way up to Busoni’s early death in 1924. In one of his letters to Busoni, Sibelius writes the following admission:

“Without you, I should have remained a phenomena of the forests”. This short sentence sheds more light than any weighty explanations on just how important it was for Sibelius to secure and maintain a constant, live contact with musical life in Europe. If we take into account the time between 1889–1891 that Sibelius spent studying in Berlin and Vienna, we can note that he had created a whole host of international contacts before his own national style began to take shape in the 1892 Kullervo Symphony. From these beginnings Sibelius’s original “Finnish style” was to grow to its true greatness. The same blend of national background and international stimuli is there to be seen in various forms throughout Sibelius’s great span, from the breakthrough of a rough-hewn personality in the primitive Kullervo music all the way to the dark glow of the world of Tapiola, where the unity of the natural and spiritual world is conjured up in unique fashion.

Many foreigners have commented that they could only understand Sibelius’s music after seeing the Finnish landscape at first hand. There is no denying that Nature – the Finnish model of it – was Sibelius’s most important source of inspiration, an inexhaustible well. He himself underlined this on many occasions. And yet we cannot say that as a product of a particular environment he would as an artist be an isolated phenomenon among the masters. In much the same way, we might not be able fully to understand, say, the music of Schubert without an understanding of the Viennese atmosphere, or fully appreciate the world of Mussorgsky without first making ourselves familiar with the Slavic temperament through Russian literature. Although it is possible to see in Sibelius’s art, even in his musical materials and particularly in his early works, certain typically Finnish features, I still believe that the Finnishness of Sibelius’s music is linked above all to the surrounding milieu and natural order.

Behind all creative work there is as it were a kind of heat-generating friction, a spiritual conflict, which is the spur to creativity. It is perhaps not a completely wild assertion to say that one factor working behind Sibelius’s peculiar greatness was the conflict that emerged in personality between the sophisticated and cultivated man of the world and the primitive nature-worshipper, sensitive in the extreme to all the phenomena about him.

Sibelius’s position in his native Finland is an exceptional one for an artist. The admiration he generated is not dissimilar to the hero-worship directed towards statesmen or commanders who have decisively shaped the fate of the land. Using music, the least material of all artistic means, he joined the struggle for national independence, without ever being in any sense of the word a political figure. Sibelius’s position does not stem solely from his triumphs on the international arts front, but also from the uncommonly direct and inspiring contribution he made in certain purely patriotic works – all the way from Finlandia onwards – on behalf of the Finnish people’s fight for existence. His Kalevala-inspired works fall into the same category. The Second Symphony, too, was generally understood as a “patriotic symphony”, although the sources of inspiration can at least in part be found from quite another direction.

Many of Sibelius’s works have been national emblems, and remained as such during the history of the young republic, most notably during the hard years of the Winter War and the Continuation War of 1941–44. There can hardly be another composer in the history of music who could have inspired his people as powerfully in time of need as did Jean Sibelius. The closest counterpart that comes to mind is the role of Giuseppe Verdi in Italy during the Risorgimento.

The label of national hero has by no means been only a positive factor in shaping Sibelius’s international standing. There is still in some quarters a tendency to see him as an “ethnographical composer”. Gustav Mahler, whom Sibelius met while Mahler was on a conducting visit to Helsinki in 1907, referred to him as a “Lokalgrosse” – a local celebrity. In Mahler’s case at least, but also in many later instances, this sort of thinking stems from the fact that the speaker knows only the music from Sibelius’s national-romantic period. As a rule, it seems to be difficult for many to place the strikingly personal Sibelius, with his lack of handy “-isms” to cling to, on the chart of the development of 20th century Western music. Nevertheless, it is here he belongs. I shall take a couple of examples. The Fourth Symphony, completed in 1911, a work born out of a personal crisis and a period of crisis in Western music, or Tapiola from 1926, with its pioneering structural solutions, will both certainly come increasingly to be seen as an integral part of the development of music in our century, inside it and acting upon it.

In his lifetime Sibelius witnessed the enormous growth of his international reputation in the 1920s and 30s, most notably in the Anglo-Saxon world. After World War II, with the winds blowing from a different direction, many felt it was time for a “scientific counter-attack” against his name. Among those in the first wave was René Leibowitz, with his French-language diatribe “Jean Sibelius, The Worst Composer in the World” (Liege, 1955). Paradoxically enough, Leibowitz’s title reveals Sibelius’s real international importance. After all, who in their right mind would set to writing about the worst composer in the world?

And what is the situation today [1990]? Sibelius’s works are still constantly in the repertoires of the world’s greatest orchestras and most celebrated conductors, while the Violin Concerto is a must for nearly all the top-flight violinists. New Sibelius recordings appear every year. Time is well-known as an incorruptible judge and jury. In closing, I shall take just one example from the beginning of Sibelius’s career. Kullervo, which Sibelius withdrew shortly after its first performance as “the sins of my youth”, is still firmly entrenched in the concert repertoire after its 1957 revival, and several recordings already exist of it. The work was completed in 1892, so it is nearly 100 years old. The temporal perspective does seem to be enough. Sibelius belongs among the great masters.

This article was first published in FMQ 3–4/1990, a theme issue on Sibelius, and is republished with the kind permission of the author’s family.